We’ll Never Make It Alone

I’ve been dreaming of saying this for a long time, and I wanted to save it until this blog had developed further, but it just can’t wait any longer.

I want to share with you a brief moment in time. This happened on a very ordinary Thursday night while Amy was on her research trip in London. I went to the grocery store to get some food for the cats, and as Whole Foods was closed at that late hour, I went to the Albertsons across the street instead. Besides, the cats won’t eat fancy cat food. I was riding my bike, as I make every trip that isn’t time-sensitive on my bike. I sleepily swiped my card and the cashier put the case of cat food in a grocery bag. “Oh, you know what, man? I don’t need a bag. I’ve got one here,” I said, pointing to the messenger bag that accompanies me on every ride. The cashier, also tired and clearly less interested in this transaction than I was, shrugged, removed the grocery bag, and promptly threw it in the trash.

It was late, and I was too tired to react to the moment. I don’t think it even registered. It was, however, a moment beyond all others that demonstrated the elephant in the room where the “personal lifestyle change” of the green movement is concerned.

Simply put, friends, we’ll never make it alone.

So many, myself included, have taken to heart the message that personal lifestyle changes are making a difference. To be sure, in some small way, they are. There is, however, no way to escape the defeatist adage– “For every one person trying to save the world, thousands are part of the problem.” I’ve never seen a good response to this that didn’t simply reduce down to “Well, at least I’m trying to do the right thing. It’s still the right thing to do.” This is true, but only vacuously. The sacrifices of civilians in World War II become invoked. Unfortunately, the analogy is partial at best. It’s true that World War II would have been a different story without civilian upon civilian toiling through the dark and waiting for the light, only to go home and live without meat to be grateful for just the bread. These people, however, did not merely volunteer for the war works or ration themselves. Their toil in factories was work done for a paycheck, and their austerity was enforced by government oversight. To be sure, it’s demonstrable that the rationing system was widely cheated on. Austerity may have been patriotic, but short-term self-interest is eternal.

All of this brings me back around to look at this moment at Albertsons. There were three outcomes to this situation. If I took the bag, it’d get reused at least once before disposal. If he gave the bag to another customer, at least it’d have saved the one bag otherwise given to me. If he threw it away, it was a waste without use. The least sustainable option happened by sheer accident and, at that moment in time, I didn’t want to become a moralizing jerk about it. I absolutely cannot stress this enough, because it is the central theme here– The least sustainable course of action happened by accident. This, my friends, is why we’ll never make it alone.

I’m not afraid to admit it. I’m a young, mostly physically fit, child-free member of the bourgeoisie. This means that I have two things available to me: disposable income and leisure time. These two things combine together to form something I like to call “economic agency”, or the ability to apply spare capital and labor to make active choices about the way one lives. The more disposable income one has, the more easily one can adopt a new product. The more leisure time one has, the more room one has to seek out less convenient options, learn new skills, and generally develop new ways to live. These critical features are further enhanced by things such as having a fit body, which equates to a greater efficiency of certain kinds of labor. My condition in life is rich in economic agency. My earning power has allowed me to rent an apartment close to my place of work. My leisure time allows me to think about new experiments in DIY greenness, to research shows and blog posts, or even smaller things like learning how to shave with a straight razor. My level of health and fitness affords me the ability to day-trip via bicycle to cities that are over 30 miles away. So many of my choices are privileged ones I can make because I can afford to make them. I am, however, part of a fairly elite group in that respect.

Consider the staggering number of people in America alone who live below the poverty line. Consider the number of people who live near the poverty line. Consider how many of these people have families to provide for, for whom the real daily choices may reduce down to which bill is the farthest behind or whether they can afford gas or food. Take a daytime tour through those parts of town you dare not enter come nightfall and try to spot all the new cars. You won’t find many. These are not people who are considering buying a Prius, even if the fuel efficiency would help their stretched home budgets. The impoverished have whatever car they can afford, should they even have one at all, and while it might be comforting to assure ourselves that not having a car is some sort of “working class greenness”, it’s disingenuous in a world where access to a motor vehicle can mean the difference between poverty and financial stability. That is the spitting image of having no economic agency. Without money or time, a person doesn’t have the luxury to ask if their base subsistence is healthy or green. Yet those barely getting by hand-to-mouth are sinking in the same global problems as the rest of us.

While I could stop here, it doesn’t paint the complete picture. There’s the other side of this coin– those who have the agency to change their lifestyles but who, by sheer inertia, don’t. It’s so fashionable to moralize these days, and within liberal circles, the new moral standard is “conscious living.” I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but none of us live as “consciously” as we want to believe. Inertia is endemic and, to a point, natural. It’s with that that we must realize that personal moral solicitation is not the answer to the inert. A very politically aware friend of mine admitted recently that he knows it’s not sustainable to take his groceries home in plastic bags, but he does it anyway because they’re there. For a harried mother with screaming children, voluntarily remembering to pack the cloth bags on the grocery trip is a bit uphill. I’m embarrassed to admit that I myself often forget the cloth grocery bags…this is why I’m so glad to use my bike, because I always have a bag with me.

Let’s revisit the metaphor of fighting fascism in Europe. Try to imagine, just for a moment, that America didn’t mount a national effort, didn’t build a military-industrial complex to supply the effort, and didn’t conscript. Let’s say that, instead, we fought the Axis through a grassroots effort of people building their own guns and paying their own boat passage to the Western Front. Let’s say recruiting was strictly done by the families of volunteers trying to morally outrank the families who hadn’t volunteered. Could any person of intellectual honesty say that an effort of this nature would have worked? If it took several national initiatives…governments, industries, and voluntary civilian efforts…working in tandem to topple a very clear and material foe, what chance do the distant and nearly invisible foes of pollution, climate change, and global poverty have?

No, my friends. Don’t confuse Greentime or the efforts of my blogger friends like Vanessa or Collin as the solution. Personal change is not the final answer. To extend the WWII metaphor correctly, Pearl Harbor has not yet happened. We’re in the phase of national neutrality, and we’re the idealistic hawks doing our best to argue against the tide of neutrality in our culture. We are merely standing against the tide to show that it can be done and to encourage people to look at things in a new way. We’re just beginning to develop popular demand. We’ve not yet begun the real fight.

When the real battle for our environmental and economic future comes, it’s going to take serious petitions of government and industry at all levels to exhibit the necessary courage to make the huge turn towards sustainability. It will require a change of nearly every behavior we have right now until every action, no matter how accidental, favors sustainability. To do otherwise is to have lost the plot. You can’t win in Iraq fighting door to door, and it works even less on a global scale.

The time has come, now that greenness is popular, for us to take of the lenses of bourgeois privilege. If we are to progress, we must admit that we’ll never make it alone.

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  1. Chris Dunphy said,

    March 21, 2008 @ 10:38 pm

    Insightful, and an important wake up call.

    Structural changes are the key.

    If you think about it, an inventor at the grocery bag company who comes up with a way to increase profits by 30% by using 30% less plastic per bag is probably doing more long-term good for the environment than an army of middle-class greenies toting canvas.

    Focusing on the day-to-day “green living” is a very good thing to do, but it needs to be balanced with a very practical outcomes focused broad view.

    What we really need to do is make green choices easy and profitable so that they become the default. That is when the big impacts will happen.

    – Chris

  2. Rhett said,

    March 23, 2008 @ 8:26 am


    You basically hit the nail on the head with the mention of raising profits while cutting unsustainable practices. Finding the ways to do this is really the only route forward, because it makes the more sustainable option become essentially accidental. I do think there will be times when consumer changes are good. For example, the canvas bag is becoming more fashionable and Whole Foods will soon cancel their plastic bag offerings. Using the power of fashion and prestige consumerism can be a good thing…I expect we’ll see stronger demand for hybrids because they’re becoming fashionable…but it’s certainly only one small tool in the entire shed.

    People often confuse greenness with being anti-capitalist. On the contrary, I believe capitalism works just fine, but it requires a mixture of regulation from a democratic government and social pressures from the populace. Using these things to define a market where greenness is profitable is what ultimately wins the game.

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